Predicting the Biggest Undrafted Free Agent Success Stories of 2013
The impact of an undrafted free agent varies depending on the team and the year. Occasionally an undrafted player turns into a star, but more often what we see is eventual solid contributors of the league.
In 2012, there were several notable undrafted players that made rosters and saw significant playing time: Vontaze Burfict, Rod Streater, Brandon Bolden, Leonard Johnson, Mike Brewster and Dezman Moses. In recent years, players like Chris Harris Jr., Victor Cruz, Arian Foster and Dannell Ellerbe have come out of the undrafted ranks.
What makes a successful undrafted free agent? Typically, these players are either amazing athletes, had college injuries, had character concerns, are from small schools or were buried on the depth chart on a great college team.
There will be undrafted free agent success stories in 2013, but the trick is narrowing down a pool of about 500 down to the handful of guys that have a legitimate shot.
WR Da’Rick Rogers
Former Tennessee and Tennessee Tech star wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers went undrafted even though he was given a second- or third-round grade by most experts. Matt Miller had Rogers as his 97th overall player.
After the draft, Rogers signed with the receiver-needy Buffalo Bills. Rogers will compete immediately with rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin for the job opposite Stevie Johnson.
Let’s be honest—there’s not a lot of trouble for Rogers to get into in Buffalo. Rogers knows this could be his only chance and he has a chance to be a very good wide receiver.
The leadership in Buffalo will keep close tabs on Rogers and likely appoint him a team advisor to help him with maturity issues. If Rogers proves to be able to overcome his past, the Bills will have one heck of an undrafted success story.
QB Tyler Bray
Tyler Bray has all the physical tools to be a franchise quarterback, but he has a character red flag and needs a lot of work on his game. If Bray was a first-round pick, he’d probably be high on the list of potential busts and you wouldn’t bet on his success.
As an undrafted free agent, Bray becomes a bit more interesting. Remember, Bray declared early for the draft, so going undrafted was a big slice of humble pie. What Bray should now realize is that his size and arm have taken him as far as they ever will.
Perhaps the best indication that Bray now understands the task ahead of him was the decision to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs. Head coach Andy Reid is a known quarterback whisperer that can clean up the many areas of Bray’s game that need work. It’s never a bad thing to have an offensive coordinator that has played the position professionally either, as Doug Pederson is a former pro quarterback.
Bray can learn maturity from Alex Smith, who remained a class act through good times and bad times in San Francisco and was highly respected by his teammates. Chase Daniel will also be part of the quarterback room and is a high-character player that spent the last four years watching Drew Brees in New Orleans.
The Chiefs will also be willing to invest time in Bray because they probably don’t have a quarterback of the future on the roster. Given the situation, Bray has a good chance to be an undrafted free agent success story in 2013 and beyond.
QB Matt Scott
The Jaguars didn’t draft a quarterback and chose instead to sign the undrafted Matt Scott. Considering the only two quarterbacks on the roster are Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne, it’s somewhat amazing the Jaguars didn’t address the position during the draft.
Given Gabbert and Henne’s abilities, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Scott start at some point in 2013. Scott already seems like a virtual lock to make the roster as it’s currently constructed.
Scott is a developmental project, but the raw skills are there. Scott possesses a good arm, quick release and mobility to spare. Scott even had a better three-cone and 20-yard shuttle time than Russell Wilson did last season (with identical broad jumps).
Since Scott’s flaws are mostly correctable with good coaching, the opportunity could be there for him play. Given these facts, there is also a legitimate chance that Scott could be an undrafted success story. Scott’s ability to extend plays and bail himself out with his legs will give him an advantage over all the other quarterbacks in Jacksonville.
LB Chase Thomas
Chase Thomas is a “football player” more than he is an athlete and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Thomas isn’t going to impress anyone with his speed, strength or agility, but he’ll be proof that workout numbers are overrated.
Although Thomas’ ceiling is relatively low, he puts himself into position to make plays with excellent instincts, technique and hustle. Thomas is the kind of guy coaches love because he does his job. If every player on defense does their job, it only takes one or two playmakers for a defense to be good.
Thomas was the 68th overall player on NFL.com and the highest to go undrafted. Thomas was also the 91st overall player in Matt Miller’s final rankings and Miller gave him the “best vs. run” designation at outside linebacker. For whatever reason, all teams passed on Thomas, but he’ll prove them wrong after signing with the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints need a lot of help on defense and at outside linebacker, which will give Thomas the opportunity he needs to be a success story in 2013. Thomas is a versatile player that a defensive coordinator can ask anything of.
FS Tony Jefferson
Although not the ideal height for an NFL safety, Tony Jefferson was expected to be drafted in the middle rounds of the draft. Jefferson was NFL.com’s ninth-best safety and Matt Miller’s seventh-best free safety and 132nd overall player.
A WalterFootbal.com report at the 2013 Senior Bowl said that Jefferson was “getting trashed by some of his former coaches for horrible practice habits and a lack of work ethic in the weight room.”
Jefferson wouldn’t be the first or last player to get trashed by his former coaches and go on to have a solid NFL career. Jefferson still has a lot of ability and he’ll have to practice hard and put in the work in the weight room to make the 53-man roster in Arizona.
If a fall like this doesn’t light a fire in his belly, nothing will. Jefferson is an aggressive player that likes contact, and you have to think he’ll take this as a challenge to prove people wrong about him.
The Cardinals have a need for a hard-hitting safety and are even going to try Tyrann Mathieu at safety. Jefferson is an aggressive run defender that likes contact. He’s also good in zone coverage and will even do OK in man coverage.
Jefferson looks like a guy with legitimate 4.4 speed, but ran slow at the combine. Jefferson may have dug himself a hole, but he’s got the talent to contribute in the NFL.
LB Kevin Reddick
Kevin Reddick was Matt Miller’s sixth-rated inside linebacker and 129th overall player, but he wasn’t drafted. Reddick was NFL.com’s 10th-best linebacker overall.
The defense-needy Saints scooped Reddick up and will not be disappointed with his ability to play downhill and stop the run. Reddick could even push for playing time as a two-down thumper in the Saints' 3-4 defense.
Featured Columnist B.J. Kissel wrote this about Reddick:
“Reddick impressed at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama with his strength and closing speed when coming down-hill towards a ball-carrier or when rushing the passer. He consistently blew-up running backs in 'backs on backers' blocking drills at practice and easily got to the quarterback.”
Reddick will figure out a way to contribute for the Saints, whether that be on defense or as a key contributor on special teams. Don’t be surprised if Reddick is seeing significant playing time in 2013, even with a few quality players currently ahead of him on the depth chart.
LB Keith Pough
Without elite workout numbers, it’s almost impossible for prospects from the FCS to raise their draft stock. Scouts don’t trust tape from the lower levels of competition, so combine performances are vital. Keith Pough had a combine to forget after running a 4.90-second 40-yard dash and disappointing times in the three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle.
Pough finished his career with a record-breaking 70 tackles for a loss, and that doesn’t happen if a player isn’t a cut above the competition. It’s dangerous using college stats in evaluation, but in this case it just provides some perspective on Pough’s poor combine performance. Pough didn’t appear to be real comfortable in the drills and they didn’t properly reflect his true ability.
The Buffalo Bills need help at linebacker and signed Pough to bolster the unit. In Buffalo, Pough will play under the guidance of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who coached outside linebackers with the Ravens before serving as the Jets defensive coordinator the past three years.
WR Conner Vernon
Although Conner Vernon lacks elite speed and agility, he has soft hands, runs exceptional routes and knows how to find the soft spots in zone coverage. For a big slot receiver, Vernon can really help a team like the Raiders that will deploy a West Coast offense.
The talent-depleted Raiders have a couple speedy slot guys in Jacoby Ford and Rod Streater, but no one that profiles like Vernon.
Vernon has an extra gear when he needs it, doesn’t go down easily after the catch and has the intelligence to become a quarterback’s best friend. Vernon finished his career as the ACC’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards on a team not known for the pass.
The Raiders have a crowded group at wideout, but Ford and Denarius Moore have struggled with injuries. Vernon will get an opportunity next season and should be able to parlay that into success on a team that desperately needs to find quality players wherever they can.
OT Nick Becton
The San Diego Chargers need a left tackle and weren’t able to find one in the draft. It’s to the point that the Chargers are in ongoing contract talks with free agent Bryant McKinnie, according to U-T San Diego.
McKinnie will be 34 this September and will need to be motivated. King Dunlap is the only other decent option at left tackle and could be playing guard this season. At some point, a door could open for undrafted free agent Nick Becton in San Diego.
Becton’s 35.5-inch arms and 6'5", 323-pound frame makes him an intriguing developmental project. Becton is also athletic for his size and has quick feet. Becton just needs to get stronger to hold up in the pros, as he only had 19 reps on the bench press at the combine.
Joe D’Alessandris is a quality offensive line coach that will be able to teach Becton technique. Becton should stick as a backup tackle and could see playing time at some point during the season. Becton has legitimate starter potential in the future and could end up being one of this year’s best UFA success stories.
OT Xavier Nixon
Tyler Polumbus was terrible for the Washington Redskins last season and it’s no secret they could use an upgrade at the position to protect Robert Griffin III. The Redskins just didn’t have a lot of resources to address the offensive line this offseason with so little cap space and so few draft picks.
Fortunately for Griffin, Xavier Nixon was available and has a legitimate chance to play early and often in Washington. Nixon is a perfect fit for the zone-blocking scheme that head coach Mike Shannahan favors. Nixon was Matt Miller’s 15th-best offensive tackle and 149th overall player.
The athletic Nixon is good on the move and has legitimate NFL size at 6’6” and 321 pounds. Nixon also has big hands and sufficiently long arms for a right tackle. The problem for Nixon has been his technique, which a good coaching staff in Washington should be able to teach him.
The zone-blocking scheme is designed to maximize the talents of offensive linemen that aren’t top draft choices and Nixon can be just another example of how the scheme is effective.